Cistern of Atavism

June 22, 2010

The other morning I went out to hand water the garden. It’s a quieting ritual I share with a few birds before the sun comes over the mountain to my east. I noticed the hose didn’t seem to work to draw water from the catchment cistern. After various Laurel and Hardy-like routines of switching hoses, looking in working facets and so on, I climbed a ladder and peered in. The 500 gallon cistern was nearly empty. My body reacted the same way it did years ago when I sat on the curb and saw the car I wrecked, or watched police break through my door, or shook my grandfather’s hand the hot afternoon I got married. A physical sinking flush of realization that I was powerless to change what was happening, and that event was staring into me. Looking in that dark water I felt a deeper unmediated part of me silently shrieking. I felt as if I’d fallen off the ladder and was struggling to run away, but couldn’t…that dream. Be clear, as close as I come to farming is shaking hands with people at the farmer’s markets where I buy vegetables when the weather’s nice. My garden is herbs and ornamentals. I was raised in an industrial city in northern Ohio, not a drought plagued geography. My experiences with cisterns and drought have been limited to tourism, art and literature. So I was more surprised at my reaction than, the actual low cistern. Where did such a deep wild reaction originate from within me, some lost memory, the collective unconscious…was I channeling a maintenance message from the dead owners of this house?

Sometime in my more academically ambitious past I was researching possible relationships between the contemporaneous Rilke and Jung. I was interested not just in their theories of memory, art and the collective unconscious, but “Blood Memory”. Blood Memory, now primarily restricted to detective novel titles, old Star Trek episodes and confused fringe groups, was a fashionable theory at the turn of the 20th Century. It was a way of knowing without learning or experience. It extrapolated genetics into a primitive cultural feeling of déjà vu by inventing a corpuscular memory bank; it was popular with both artists and racists.  It gave credence to unarticulated feelings that seemed too real to be merely transient or random. My Grandparents would have learned about Blood Memory in the same passing way we understand Alzheimer’s disease or deep water drilling. It was Social Darwinism for those who didn’t want to accept or bother to read Darwin.

Eventually my project disintegrated into a pile of manila files, a shelf of pretentious books and unreviewed notes. For me the parts became more valuable than the whole. I traveled to Austria and had a deep, satisfying reading of Rilke in a small cottage with the wind whispering under the door, and spent a couple years in Jungian analysis, and seemed to have moved on. But the value of knowledge doesn’t reside in institutions and mere information, its nature is direct contact and experience. It is the tedious, hand to hand relationship with the world that forms (or deforms) every culture and art piece by piece. Failing to maintain that person by person integration leaves civilizations broken and in ruin. To integrate genuine knowledge of the world requires a marriage, a mutual possession. For the most part that possession is what a university lecture or a museum can only demonstrate in fragments…which in part brings me back to Rilke and Jung and a famous fragment of a statue. In “Archaic Torso of Apollo” Rilke explores a relationship of interiorities between the viewer and the viewed:

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

[Archaic Torso of Apollo, RMR, translated Stephen Mitchell]

He prescribed a kind of reflexive struggle of perception where the viewer encounters an object and is entered by that object. The jarring admonishment Rilke gives at the end of the poem comes neither from the viewer or the object, but from a voice created by possession.

Jung had a similar, if somewhat less lyrical description of possession”… In the state of possession both figures [animus & anima] lose their charm and their values; they retain them only when they are turned away from the world, in the introverted state, when they serve as bridges to the unconscious. “ [Concerning Rebirth C.W.]

The idea that a person can be spiritually or psychically held, enthused, ridden, inspired, taken over by a being or sense other than their conscious mind has been in human parlance since there has been human parlance. And in nearly every form of language possession has been used as a form of preternatural communication.

Possession isn’t at all a foreign notion to our age, not in a world where people strap explosive vests to themselves to fight Holy Wars, the Wall Street Journal publishes articles detailing whether or not members of Sarah Palin’s former congregations spoke in tongues, and people have images of dead loved ones tattooed on themselves. For a great many of us, we are our possessions. Excluding the explosive vests and war, I’m not too critical any of this. I suspect nearly all human beings need to be “possessed” at some times, and some quite frequently. Many of us go deeply out of our way to have that experience. We pray in varieties of ways to varieties of deities, dutifully dance to our favorite songs, do yoga (religious and secular), search for hours to buy rare trash on Ebay, fall in love with strangers, gasp at horror movies, write poems, meditate, keep our dreams in journals, sing in our cars, train for ultra marathons,  cry over tele-novellas, obsessively practice musical instruments, dress in period costumes to reenact Civil War battles, and ingest all manner of psychoactive concoctions…all for that perception of both being more than real and genuinely there at the same time. To varying extents we assess the value of our efforts based on the same criteria Rilke and Jung outlined…of being more fully present than we are in the tedium of most of our lives and an other-worldly awareness of simultaneous connection with the past and present and that this connection has resonance in our bodies. Being there.

But there is so seldom an authentic there. It’s a weird adverb; it’s always a relation, and always just there away from us. Both Rilke and Jung seem to agree that  to be possessed, to get there to recieve the message requires some courtship, a pilgrimage, a ritual..a great silence. For twenty or thiry years I pursued the mysterious people who built mounds and pyramids all over North America. Since my youth I’ve read and engaged in intuitive preparation, from visiting Mound Builder sites, to sleeping on earthwork serpents, building earthwork sculpture and crawling through terrifying humid tunnels in pyramids constructed to inter much smaller men than me. I didn’t want mere knowledge; I wanted contact.

Not too many summers ago I was standing in the noontime sun estimating how many billion cochineal it would have taken to dye the Placio de los Juguares red, just as my grad student tour guide at Tenochtitlan began presenting her theory of Las Vegas. “It is a simulacrum…designed to look like a Venice, Egypt, or New York, that doesn’t exist except by façade and in the imagination of tourists. It’s a pronoun without a physical antecedent.” Her implication was that tourists were too ignorant to know better, or wanted to co-opt another culture on the cheap. Somehow vacationers and gamblers had no right to experience even a faux physical knowledge of places they hadn’t actually visited. Her thesis was that American architecture had abandoned self possession in favor of the artificial security of commercializing things past.

Apart from the air conditioning, I asked, how that was different from our wandering Mexican ruins imagining the culture that had been there 1,000 years ago?

Unconsciously I had paid an erudite woman to distract my anticipated communion by generating a post PoMo critique of the Las Vegas strip while we were strolling the thousand year old ‘The Avenue of the Dead’. She chattered passionately covering the barely audible trickle of the baths that once fed and cleansed a city of 200,000 sophisticated human beings. She waited in a shaded café while I climbed the legendary Pyramid of the Sun,  a structure consecrated over and over in the blood of human sacrifice. The Aztecs visited these ruins, when they visited ruins.  It was the home of Quetzacoatl. We could only talk about a fake Vegas.

Neither she nor I could be were where we were, or who we were. She was distracted by a conceptual Las Vegas she found attractive, but not beautiful. I was ignoring the physical fragments of a city I had traveled an exhuasting distance by bus to visit. I wasn’t making a personal connection on any level in the presence of some of the most important monumental art on the continent. I had possession of nothing but a sunburn and a lecture.

And then suddenly one morning I’m looking down the hole of a water tank and I’m stunned. I’ve been siezed in the fangs of Tlaloc, the god of rain. I’m connected like lightning to a dark terrifying world of loss that both Rilke and Jung tell me I should live in and care for like my garden. I’m possessed.

It doesn’t take Rilke, Jung or even a second rate psychic to understand what a 58 year old man sees in the bottom of that well. I was possessed by my own death and it was looking back at me. The dry reality of my limited days and  the diminishing resources of my own life were my “borders” and “bursting star”. The message of the warm black water was the same as followed the polished white torso.

 Over the next few days when I thought or wrote about  the cistern, or Rilke’s broken statue, Jung’s unconscious realm of battling shadows, walking through Tenochitlan or even Venetian canals in Las Vegas. I became nervous and ennerated. I couldn’t read.  Mere knowledge was just so much stuff next to seeing my own death. Thinking made me want to brew more tea, drive in to town, check World Cup scores…watch “King Kong” again. Part of me had fallen into that cistern and  I couldn’t repossess it.

On a whim I stole a piece of my wife’s water color stock and mindlessly began painting circles with her water colors. First pale painted spheres the size of cherries, surrounded by yellow gold rings, then periwinkle and purple saucer sized loops nestled in the colors of shaded mountain grass, and this encircled by cloudy blotches of blue. It meant something to me, but I had only an inarticulate sense of what it might be. But it brought me  a deep physical relief and a faint whispering under my skin.

I believe there is  enough water in the cistern for the garden to survive. I believe it will rain soon; I can feel it in my blood.

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Repairing the Chapel

July 4, 2009

Reparing the Chapel

 

Repairing the Chapel

The chapel has taken damage in the winter turning to spring.

Ivy has forced the two window lights away from the back wall

and the thaw has rotted some wood along the casement.

It’s not my chapel; no chapel genuinely belongs to anyone.

Ownership is merely the responsibility of maintenance.

Like owning anything beautiful,

my job is to preserve it and pass it on

for the next unknown temporary owner.

Increasingly maintenance of churches,

like so many wonderous structures, is a choice for society everywhere

(I found nearly 4,000,000 hits on Goggle search “abandoned churches”).

It’s nearly a famous cliché, a self-criticizing ethical criticism.

Why spend resources on a building that does nothing,

when there are starving people in…?

But a more fundamental question is lost in the deflection

of allocation of religious resources to those most needy.

Why does anyone need a chapel at all?

 

There are hundreds of religions and hundreds more

sects and sub-sects arguing within those beliefs. Our collective

knowledge of the divine is by turns cosmic, petty and confounding.

There are magnificent mosques, basilicas, synagogues, padodas,

shrines and temples—sacred architecture abandoned by cultures

that have left this earth for places unknown.

Mega-churches are built on the scale of sports arenas.

as well as hundreds of thousands of nondescript churches and assemblies

where sincere congregations meet in their fellowships of worship.

 

But a wayward chapel is something both personal and abandoned

in hope that it will find its way into the right hands.

What starts as a random real estate transaction develops

dimensions of communion I would generally reserve

for translating poetry or interpreting art.

With the exception that it isn’t academic—it’s purer labor.

Someone wanted me to repair the window.

Someone wanted to touch my hand,

or more to touch their hand.

 

Repairing the chapel window has asked me to an open commitment.

It doesn’t speak, but asks in the language of aloneness.

I’m no tourist here. I am here. I am. I.

 

There’s no one in the whitewashed room, but I’m not alone.

 

Through my life I’ve visited chapels.

In Canada after arduous travel I heard the Madonna

House Community sing vespers in a sobornost house

 imitating a Russian pilgrims retreat. The nave was barely

forty degrees, vapor poured from the casual choir.

Tears flowed, I met a saint, ate in the etiquette of silence

and washed dishes with aged nuns. There’s a small chapel

in Kentucky where I listened to a beautiful young woman

play Shubert as the sun set. Then she walked out in the late spring

evening and kissed me for a long time.

I spent a half hour in Beethoven’s chapel.

There’s a chapel in Tzintzuntzan where I watched a crucified man

suffer next to a naked fluorescent tube hanging from a ceiling.

Since I was ten I’ve made trips to nondescript Calvary

Cemetery Chapel to observe a sad parade of priests

bury my family. I stood in line to retrieve miraculous dirt

at Chimayo. I mention these chapels, because they were

filled with astonishing events.

 

This chapel is like the empty bowl of my soul.

 

I know a poet who resurrected a lost rose garden.

In my imagination I dreamed of him touching the earth

that unknowns had touched, hand digging through the loam

 to Rilke’s Roses. 

One poet tries a simple and physical connection

to another poet who wasn’t there. So it is in the chapel,

a connection to a someone who isn’t there…a quieter

whispering, not rational and not effusively emotional,

—different than the rituals of religion.

 

I prime the wood and hear my Grandfather’s voice

reminding me a brush is made to spread paint and not leave

a brushstroke.  He was a patient perfectionist.

In the chapel repairs I sense a similar inventive patience.

Myopically I prime the window frame.

I go on working a coat just beneath the surface;

to restore the surface—as the someone who came before me

must have looked on in tired wonder

at the slow progress of keeping a chapel the same.

Summer of LoveSince May I’ve been touring Hank William’s “Lone Highway” actually—Georgiana, Montgomery, Alabama—and not quite making it to Canton. I don’t know why, just one of those intuitive coincidences I can’t explain, but feel might lead to something. Earlier this month I met my cousin, Vince, at the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame in lieu of driving to Loraine, OH to the Polka Hall of Fame. The Rock Gods Hall itself is creepy, like Madame Toussand’s without heads.  It’s celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love with exhibitions of stylish ghosts. I bought a commemorative key chain to help to help with our séance. We sauntered through Jimi Hendrix’s closet, paused and listened at the display of a Vocalion 78 of Robert Johnson and I saw my sixth or seventh pair of hand tooled boots alleged to be owned by Hank Williams. In the past I’ve stumbled past Electric Ladyland Studios and spent an afternoon driving around between Greenville and Rolling Forks looking in vain for Robert Johnson’s grave. So the Hank Williams tour of C&W attire seemed no stranger than visiting Keats House in Wentworth, Les Deux Maggots, or Ezra Pound’s grave in San Michele, it’s something I do…one of my ways of being in the world.  But the Cleveland Hall of Fame is almost seedy, like seeing the back of the carnival—everything looks cheaper and disproportionately small. Vince is considerably younger than me, but for the most part he was patient with my meandering through the fool’s golden age of rock. He didn’t care much about Jim Morrison’s leather pants, Brian Jones’ caftan or John Lennon’s handwriting. He asked me how crazy it was at Woodstock and seemed politely appalled at the psychedelic sense of fashion. We walked by the Michael Jackson mannequin already encased, like everything else there, in its special version of spot lit amber. Vince knew a lot about Motown (He knows a lot about a lot of things) and we had a passing argument about what the Sound of Young America symbolized and what Barry Gordy meant to the industry of music. We conjectured about what record producers, disc jockeys and executives had to do with the deep fundamental pelvic grab of Rock ’n Roll. Just asking questions that we felt might make the price of admission seem less steep. Probably the most prescient question we discussed was “If he’s the King of Pop…have you ever seen Michael Jackson or know anybody who has?” It took a week before we found someone we knew who had. And that included my daughter’s stepbrother, Travis who seems to have seen everyone in concert. Michael Jackson was a recluse in our collective memory before he was lost in Neverland.  Until suddenly, his heart stopped…

Our new cyber culture was electrified with a celebratory spirit like a drunken Greek chorus. Philippine Prisoners forced to practice reenacting their “Thriller” reenactments for hours. A friend sends me pictures of a memorial video dance at the Alamo Draft House in Austin. Anyone can watch versions of these flash mobs appearing on YouTube dispersed all over the world…collective mind appearting to raise a voice resembling passion with no purpose, but genuine frenzy.   Electronically there are thousands of living voices singsonging along “Billie Jean is not my lover”. There’s wild rush from work to the streets or bars with beers and camera phones in hand photographing themselves dancing in imitation of the creature who only yesterday was derided as Jacko.    

 I imagine Greece in it’s mythopoetic glory, when sleepy eyed Dionysus led the dance and the drunken wild Maenads tore Orpheus head from shoulders and Oedipus put out his own eyes.  Michael Jackson was like a character Sophocles might have written—punished not for his alleged pedophilia (like Orpheus) or eccentricities in parenting (like Oedipus), but for trying to outlive his youth.  Hubris is the tragic crime and punishment. What most separates the least recognized god from the most popular king on earth, is the god will never grow old. Dionysus disappears and returns in a hundred disguises, but always a form of a strangely beautiful youth. The King of Pop inflicted monstrous plastic masks of youth on himself trying to delay the departure of his Dionysian daemon. Like Oedipus his machinations to escape his fate turned cruelly ironic—he became inspiration for his chorus’ judgment by gossip. Jacko weds Bubbles, hyperbolic chambers…dangles baby Prince.

Now the chorus is laughing and screaming, running nowhere in particular just like the mob that dispersed Orpheus leaving only his lyre still echoing its master’s songs. Like so many of  my psychopomps Elvis, Hank Williams, Sylvia Plath, Garcia-Lorca, Byron, Marilyn Monroe, Keats, Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix—gods grant mortals divine gifts only for a time, then they toss them into a wind coming out of the mouths of the mob celebrating their death like a summer festival.

 “…golden. …stardust and caught in the Devil’s bargain.”                                                                                                        “Woodstock” Joni Mitchell

Myopic Travels

June 23, 2009

 

Clovis, New Mexico

Crossing deserts, even high plain deserts in a car,
is still a spiritual experience. Yesterday traveling
stretched plateau landscape sometimes a world
so flat to see unobstructed horizon all directions.
Cloudscape a few hundred feet over me casual
drizzle, or sudden wind gusted rain oil slickening
the highway permits few distractions, the engine
straining long climbs past Santa Rosa. The last
section of highway I-40 to ABQ the worst. Road
shifts from four lane to broken lane construction
crowding the steep and curvy approach to the city.
No speeding, no passing, downhill trucks roiling
towards you. Then miraculously it changes, as if
I’d climbed out of a hole. I drive through town on
San Mateo Blvd. miles of one plaza—tire stores,
tattoo parlors, rock shops, Mexican restaurants,
massage parlors, Hooters, Pier One, Starbucks,
boot stores, tax prep, Wendy’s, custom made
leather, auto parts, fast check cashing, moccasin
and artifact shops, Ross, dry cleaners, McDonald’s,
and a boot and western wear barn. Finally I locate
the right to Whole Foods. There I go from speaking
to no one for hours to constant collisions and apologies
to and from shoppers wandering through their lists.
For me it should be simple, the same things I get
at the grocery any weekend. Do I have enough onions?
Do I like the look of that fish? Should I get wine
in case guests arrive? But I have to fight back
the urge to talk to people uninvited. I don’t want to
be the creepy super market guy—

Then the last 40 miles to the house—

ABQ fades in my rearview mirror as I get over
the top of the Rio Rancho hill on Rt.550 orange
mesas and the lavender Jemez Mountains, then turn
at San Ysidro and the Jemez River Valley of small
farms and Cottonwood trees. I pass above Jemez
Reservation, not western romantic and a speed trap
at 30 mph,without mercy for outsiders. Always a dog
or two wandering from there to somewhere else,
a cloud of yellow dust rising from activity; it knows
it’s own charm. Then I descend to round red rocks
the road still winding alongside the river. West-
side cliff faces rise to mesa tops. I drift into Jemez
Springs at 25mph (speed trap). A clutch of bikers
hanging around at Los Ojos, the cowboy bar. But
they’re not real bikers anymore, pleasant dress up,
a pageant so they can ride the same road in and out
of their dreams too. Just past the curve at Soda Dam
I turn at Redondo and toss up dirt and slide and rattle
up the rough graded road. All I can do is keep going
slower until I get to the top of the road. I look down
to see the valley, or look right and up to the house.
There are weeds all over the drive I worked so hard
to clear last summer…but I can’t care. I’m here.
I open all the windows, drag bags out of the car and start
putting away and finding and losing things. Around five
I start to saute zucchini for dinner. The telephone rings,
“Yes I’m here”. The wireless router doesn’t work right.
The television doesn’t work at all. The radio has periodic
static, but the DJ’s playing recordings of Van Morrison
live years ago, and happily there’s nothing left to do
but listen to Van’s plaintive searching for his soul
and invisible birds singing along out in the dark.
Then I don’t need Van. It’s just birds and the occasional
hum of the refrigerator. A sleigh bed surrounded by open
windows. I’m so tired I don’t want to go to sleep, not yet.
So lovely buried under the blankets, surrounded by white
silent arms of pillows…what dream could bring dreams
better than this gentle ceasing?